The ABCs of MFPs – Buyers Guide

Neal McChristy

The multifunctional peripheral (MFP)–with its ability to scan, copy, print, and fax–rivals the versatility of the new cell phones that can also surf the Web.

MFPs–sometimes called multifunctional devices or MFDs–have expanded in definition. Now there are models based on printers that can fax and copy or based on fax machines or on copiers that print and fax. Sometimes a copier or printer can be transformed into an MFP by simply adding circuit boards.

Moreover, the devices are coming down in price like the rest of the digital world and now range from $199 to about $300,000, according to Barry Tepper, senior consultant for the CAP Ventures Converging Digital Peripherals Service, Norwell, Mass. “In general, the pricing is decreasing at about 9-12 percent per year,” Tepper says. At the same time, placements are on the upswing.

Most MFPs today are truly more multifunctional. Although there are exceptions on the low end, many of these devices separate memory for various functions so they can do several tasks at once without stopping one before starting another. And vendors are taking advantage of lower memory prices, so there are fewer “memory overflow” messages, common with vintage MFPs.

“We recommend to go with maximum memory on all of it,” says Henry Franco, director of service at DocuSource, Irvine, Calif. But Mark Stancik, salesperson for Baco Enterprises, Wall, N.J., says, “I don’t recommend maxing out memory on a machine unless speed is absolutely crucial.”

The MFP is the best solution for a small business or home office that’s short on cash or space. Another attractive part of these peripherals is their ease of use. Plug it in, hook it to the computer’s parallel port or USB (Universal Serial Bus), connect the telephone line, do a software install of the printer driver, and it’s ready to operate.

As for quality, the machines also have the advantage of crisp, clear digital reproduction–the hallmark of other digital devices.

But are they user-friendly?

Some machines “can be friendly, and then there are those that are not so,” says Gordon Hove, service manager of Chader Business Equipment, Waite Park, Minn. He mentions the Konica 7020 as a device that’s easy to operate. The machine spits out 20 pages per minute, and end users can sit down and easily use it the first time. But he says he’s “seen some printer-fax machines, and faxing from them, it’s almost like you have to read the Constitution to do it.”

Digital overcomes drawback

The MFP does have one inherent drawback for some consumers–if the machine is down a few hours, that’s four functions down a few hours instead of just one. “I guess the multifunctional is coming around,” says Hove. “We’ve been hearing about it for years and what it will do. But up until recently customers have been very resistant to use the thing because if it’s down, you lose it all.”

Stancik says, “most customers don’t want to put all their eggs in one basket. I sell a lot more stand-alone printers to my customers.”

Ozzie Acosta, service manager for DocuSource, says multifunctionals have “come a long way in terms of memory and functionality of the equipment.” And there are few mechanical breakdowns in the process, says Don Holland, owner of Don’s Copiers Plus, Shawnee, Okia., along with traditionally separate hoards for processing printing versus fax. “Because of the advances in the digital process,” Holland points out, “there isn’t usually any breakdown.”

The push-pull of fax

There’s one basic rule of faxing from any fax machine, including MFPs–how fast you can fax a document is dependent upon the speed of the machine that’s receiving the faxed document. Another limiting factor is the telephone. The two-wire telephone line pipeline transmits at about 30-40K baud, no matter the speed of the fax modem.

Hove says their regional telephone lines transmit at 38.8K baud, no matter what the push from the fax. The standard rate, available on about half of OEM MFPs, is 3 3.6K baud (or 33.6 Kbps). But there are many devices that can’t fax at that speed. Fax compression, such as JBIG compression or Super G3, is a popular option, with the decompression of the fax completely restoring bits to that of the original scan.

JBIG, on Canon MFPs, stands for the Joint Bi-Level Image Experts Group, which produces standards for the JBIG compression. It’s a form of encoding grayscale and color images that’s more efficient than other forms of compression.

Super G3, available on Ricoh, is available with a 33.6-Kbps modem, ISDN, and fiber-optic connection. “It’s like every other fax option,” Holland says. “If the person on the other end doesn’t do it, it’s worthless.”

Copier channel rules

“The MFPs out of the copier world have been more successful than those in the fax world or printer world,” Tepper says.

The advantage of the copier engine over the fax-based and printer based MFP is the same as a 5.2-liter versus a 3.2-liter automobile engine. Copier-based MFPs have more powerful engines, according to Acosta. “The whole process of the machine is faster,” Franco agrees.

The printer world historically has lacked a powerful dealer channel for MFPs, Tepper says, and as a result, dealers sold printers with scanners at relatively cheap prices.

There’s a reason the fax-based MFPs have not caught up with copier-based MFPs. Tepper says when the machines initially were introduced, low-end printers were placed inside high-end fax devices. The connectivity rate to local area networks (LANs) was high–about 70 percent. That preceded a significant number of failures.

Now, he says, companies such as Canon, Muratec, and Xerox offer a higher-end printer in their fax-based MFP, but now the connectivity rate is about 15 percent for these workgroup devices. Those selling printer MFPs have also not traditionally provided maintenance contracts. The IT manager who makes printer-type purchasing decisions for a company is hesitant to buy a device without someone to maintain and service it, according to Tepper.

Holland sells mostly copier-based, including maintenance cost-per-copy contracts. Tepper says copier dealers have been true value-added resellers in the market, and the maintenance contract has been “their bread and butter.”

In addition to reassurance for the customer of the copier-based MFP, the advantages of the cost-per-copy maintenance contract are also green–as in money. Holland says they’ve found page volume increases naturally the more functions are sold. On connected machines, he says he would estimate volume has increased 40 percent for cost-per-copy contracts that are MFPs.

Hove says the gain is about 15 percent more. “I think you’re going to gain the most from the printing aspect.”

Upstart hasn’t replaced fax

MFPs such as the Xerox WorkCentre Pro recognize the need to fax to email. But is there a need for fax capability at all in MFPs when e-mail is available?

Fax-based functions on an MFP are traditionally slower, according to Holland. Warren Whitlock, president of Landmark Laser, Rialto, Calif., wonders why people use an MFP to fax when e-mail is available. He says in his business, employees use an HP LaserJet to copy as much as they fax from it.

On the business side, he thinks the future of this trend is that OEMs will either put all functions together or “will realize that faxing from a printer or copier is just tying up a piece of equipment needlessly. Today, you can fax from any computer. With a scanner you can input anything, and what about e-mail? Will we soon drop most of the fax volume for e-mail?”

Whitlock remarked 13 years ago, he says, that the popularity of fax machines held up e-mail use by 10 years. Franco says he thought e-mail would replace fax.

“Actually, as much as we thought that was going to happen, it’s gone the other way,” Franco says. While it is quicker to e-mail, he wonders: “Is it really reliable?”

Faxing is a function that appears firmly entrenched–in multifunctionals and elsewhere. Tepper says there are more telephones than computers, and you can fax from just about anywhere. The computer industry lacks the standards developed for fax, he says. Opening a document among machines is not always easy. Consider, he says, that there are “30 flavors of Unix machines.”

Faxed signatures provide legality for a short time until the actual document is received. “There’s nothing analogous to it in the e-mail world,” Tepper says, “though they are working on it in the form of a digital signature.”

Hooking up

Connectivity is encouraged in some MFPs, such as Konica and Ricoh, which offer embedded controllers.

As for connectivity rates, everyone knows the OEM figures have a “fudge factor” that inflates actual figures from service managers. Some dealers don’t have the network specialists or service technicians with the connectivity expertise, Tepper says. And dealers are sometimes edgy about taking responsibility for connecting to a network in case a network failure would occur after the device is connected that would be attributed to the dealer’s device. “I would say the [connectivity rate] average is between 35 and 50 percent,” Tepper says. “It varies very much by the dealer.”

Neal McChristy is a freelance journalist who resides in Pittsburg, Kan. He’s worked for an imaging magazine and Website for five years.

U.S. Market Estimates:

MFPs for the Office

Unit Placements

Type MFP 1999 2004 CAGR [*]

Personal All (K) 2,722 10,611 31%

Personal Ink jet (K) 1,626 7,597 36%

%Ink jet 60% 72%

Workgroup All (K) 1,006 2,750 22%

Workgroup Ink jet (K) 72 541 50%

% Ink jet 7% 20%

Personal MFPs go into very small businesses and home offices

Workgroup MFPs go into any area where several people share office products: either workgroups within large companies or entire small companies.

Ink jet MFPs, so far, are sold primarily through superstores.

Toner-based MFPs may be sold through superstores, dealers, or distributors.

(*.) Compound Annual Growth Rate

Source: CAP Ventures

COPYRIGHT 2001 Quality Publishing

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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